:: Interview with Alex Espinoza
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Alex Espinoza is the author Still Water Saints (Random House, January 2007), his very first novel, which was named a "Discover Great New Writers" selection at Barnes and Noble Booksellers. Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, wrote of Still Water Saints: "As perfect as the beads of a rosary," and Lisa See praised the novel as "Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative."
Alex was born in Tijuana, Mexico, the youngest of eleven children, and grew up in La Puente, a suburb of Los Angeles. He earned his B.A. from the University of California at Riverside with honors, and received an MFA from UC Irvine in 2004. He will begin teaching in the MFA program at the Creative Writing Program at California State University, Fresno in the fall of 2007. This interview took place in February 2007 at Coffee Roasters in Riverside.
DM: To my mind, Still Water Saints is the sort of book you can't put down. I tend to have several books going at a time, but there are those occasions when I read a book that is so compelling that I'll set everything aside and read only that book. Well, I wanted to share with you, first things first, that Still Water Saints was one of those books for me.
AE: Wow! Thank you so much! Thank you. That means a lot to me. That's the best compliment because I know that feeling too. That happened to me with The Grapes of Wrath. You reach a point where you're no longer conscious of anything that's going on around you when you're reading the book, and you're just trying to get back to the book. You just want to get back to the book!
AE: You just devour it.
DM: Yes, and that's exactly what I was doing. I was saying, "Leave me alone everybody. I'm reading this book."
AE: Well thank you. Thank you so much. And that's what I always look for in a book, too. I love to reach the point where you're no longer aware of the writer--where you're just aware of the words and the story. So that's a big compliment for me. Thank you.
DM: Kirkus Reviews also gave your novel wonderful praise. Librarians are well aware of how difficult they are to please, so that's wonderful for you.
AE: Everyone has been very supportive and the feedback has been very positive. It's been such a thrill. And whenever I teach creative writing, I always tell my students, "Write the kind of book that you would want to spend time reading. When you read and write, always set that goal for yourself. What do you want to read more than anything? Find those books, and then try to write those books." That's all I set out to do with Still Water Saints.
DM: You mentioned at the reading that Susan Straight was your mentor through this project.
AE: Yes she was.
DM: Would you talk about your friendship with her?
AE: I'm very fortunate that my relationship with Susan has evolved into a friendship, because at first it was very much a teacher-student relationship, and then once I was in graduate school she was more like a wise sage, and now it's a friendship that I value and trust.
Susan was the first person who made me want to work hard at writing, and she was the first person who told me, "You know, you're crazy if you want to do this, but if you want to do it, you better do it and it's the only thing you're going to be able to do." And she was absolutely right. There's this intensity to writing, but Susan made it seem possible. Susan made it seem like it was a worthwhile effort. It's something that very few people have the opportunity to do, but when they have the opportunity they should take advantage of it and try to do it.
But our friendship wasn't immediate. It wasn't like the clouds parted and I was going, "This is the person who's going to guide me." It didn't happen that way. It started with the classes, and with Susan slowly introducing good work, good stories, good characters, good novels, and showing us students what works and why, and what doesn't work, and why.
And she just gave me books to read and she sat back, and when she thought I did good work she praised me, and when I didn't do something so well, she let me know. So it started out that way, and it developed into a friendship.
And then there was one summer when I thought, "You know, I want to write this novel set in Agua Mansa." So I wrote the first three chapters of it independently, and this was before I even started my senior academic year, and so I had submissions ready for that workshop. And I gave Susan two sections of the novel to read over the summer and when we got together she said, "I think this is a really good idea." And I said, "You do?" And she said, "Yeah, but I just want to let you know, this is going to take a lot of work. But I think the botanica is an interesting place." And we just went from there. But Susan saw those first sections, those early, raw sections of it, and she guided me through. At the same time, she didn't hold my hand. She made me very aware of the fact that a lot of the lessons I was going to learn about this process were things she couldn't teach me. I just had to get in there and do it. Susan told me, "I'm gonna be there to support you, but unfortunately I can't go home with you and sit down with you at your computer and be like, 'That's great. You're doing a great job.'"
And she would always tell me, "You have to try, and you're going to fail. And there will be moments of great joy and ecstasy in your writing, but I can't be there for you the whole time."
And when I teach, I tell my students that. I say, "Look. I'm going to give you what I can, but you as a student of writing have to realize that so much of writing is finding the discipline within yourself and letting me step back. You have to be willing to put yourself in that position, if for no other reason than I'm going to put you in it."
I learned all of that from Susan. A lot of what I teach my students, a lot of my own teaching and pedagogy, comes from the lessons Susan taught me. And just listening and absorbing it and saying, "You know what? You're right." And every single thing that Susan told me, from the very beginning, I just listened. I listened patiently. I thought about what she said, I pondered it, and I then tried to do it. I tried to be a good apprentice. I tried to be a good student of the craft of writing, and I learned that I had to allow time for it, but I'm very happy with the way it turned out.
And my relationship with Susan is still growing. Now she's like my literary mother. She's like, "Now your first book is out. Now you have to learn about navigating through the business of publishing. Now you have to learn what it means to be on a panel, and what it means to go on a book tour." So she's teaching me those things. The lessons have changed from the craft of writing to navigating the publishing world. And every single time, whenever I have a question, I pick up the phone and call Susan, and she always has the answer. Always. Even now. It's been what? Ten years? Ten years later, and she still has the answers! So I really value my relationship with her immensely. She's one of the best blessings in my life. You know? That I came here and ended up studying under her. And now all of this has happened. But when I first started studying with her we didn't know. We had no idea that I would end up at Irvine and that Random House would publish my novel. You know? I was just writing something that I liked. It was something I was thrilled about. And that's what I try to tell my students. It's hard work. Yes, it's definitely a lot of hard work, and sometimes we do kick and scream. But also, don't forget that it's fun. Don't forget that there's a lot of joy in it. That is, writing shouldn't be something that you approach begrudgingly. Have fun with writing! Especially as an undergrad, because when you go into an MFA program the stakes do get raised, and it's suddenly a lot more serious.
DM: Speaking of which, would you talk about your experience in the MFA program at UC Irvine?
AE: It was very different from when I was an undergrad. I remember calling Susan and saying, "People here are different." And she said, "Yeah, I told you." I said, "Yeah, everyone here's smarter and more driven, and they're a lot more focused."
It was a very different experience. And everyone in grad school goes through that stage where they're saying, "I don't belong here. I'm dumb. I don't know what I'm doing."
But it's just that people are marking their territory. I definitely felt like a complete outsider. I wasn't the only person who came from a working-class background, but I was the only one from Southern California in my year, and I was the only person of color in my year. I had tattoos. I was pierced. I looked different and talked different, and it was a very, very frustrating first year. But I did believe that my experiences were valid, were just as valid, and the people around the workshop table quickly understood that.
Now I'm so thankful that I stayed with it. My group was very well read, and they were very smart, and they had really high expectations of literature and the work they were doing. It was the most important thing to all of us around that table, and they had absolutely nothing to gain or lose by telling me good things or bad things about my work. So they told me what worked and what didn't, and I just bucked up. I'm like, "You know what? I'm gonna do this, and it doesn't matter what I hear. I'm going to do it."
So I listened carefully, and I took in what was helpful and disregarded what I felt wasn't. I sifted through all of it. And I dedicated myself and I focused and I wrote.
I found my groove, and my five other colleagues were just fantastic once we all came around. They were fiercely dedicated and fiercely competitive, but I think the competition was important. That kind of competition is good sometimes.
DM: Could we talk a bit about your early childhood? You grew up in Tijuana?
AE: I was born in Tijuana. My mom conceived me here, but she said she was going back to Tijuana to have me because she didn't trust the doctors here. My siblings were really upset with her and they told her that if she had me here I would be born as an American citizen but she said, "I'm going to have to him in Mexico." So she did the opposite of what most people do.
And I was about two years old when we came back to the states. I come from a very large family. There were eleven of us. But fortunately we didn't all live in the same house at any given point—thankfully. It was a very crowded, and very loud, and I didn't have many opportunities to be alone. The only time I could be alone was if I was reading something, if I had my nose in a book. And so I read and I wrote. And that's sort of what I did as a kid.
DM: What about your experiences in school?
AE: I was a really bad high school student, but I loved my English classes. But like I said, I was a really bad student. Writing was the only thing I liked to do, but I didn't know what to do with it. And then I went to continuation school because I was doing such a horrible job in high school. I couldn't play sports because I was physically disabled, and I couldn't bang out a fender, and I couldn't make their projects in woodshop, so I didn't know what I was supposed to do with myself. But you know, thankfully there was reading and writing. Writing was something that I liked and was good at, and when I got to continuation school, I was able to read and I loved that.
And I remember walking to school—to that tiny little classroom—and thinking about the lives my brothers and sisters were living because they worked in factories. They didn't have any choice but to work in factories, and I remember walking to school and thinking, "There's something in this, there's something in these books, there's something in these words that's going to save me, that's going to get me out of the situation I'm in, and it's going to give me a different life. I don't know what it is, and I don't know why I'm doing it, but I have to. I just HAVE to." And that was the only thing that kept me focused.
And then we moved in 1991, after my father died, and I ended up going to San Bernardino Valley College and reading all these great Latino writers, and also writing in my English courses there. And an English teacher there noticed that I had a gift and pushed me to pursue it.
But yeah, my childhood was very strange. It was loud and noisy, and the only time I could be alone was if I was reading or writing. But I didn't have anybody to show me how to write.
DM: My mother, well, both of my parents came from working-class backgrounds, and my mother never had anybody to show her how to write, but she still overcame it. And because she didn't have anybody to show her, she made a point of sitting down with me and my sister Pascale and showing us how to write papers. And now I sit back and think, Wow. I can't imagine not having this wonderful person, our mother, work so hard with us on our writing. I realize what a tremendous help she's been, but what happens when you don't have someone to show you?
AE: Yeah. It's hard when you don't have anybody to show you. So then you have to rely on something within you. There's a kind of salvation in it, right? You want to know if you can discover the secret for yourself. But it's unfortunate. I think that we lose a lot of people this way, because a lot of students who come from similar backgrounds don't have a role model. They don't have someone like Susan or your mother, you know? They don't have somebody sitting down and telling them, "This is what you need to do."
DM: Yes. My mother would go through my term papers line by line and edit them. She was the person who did that for me. And of course both of my parents encouraged me to read, read, read, but that wasn't a problem because I loved it. Reading is another wonderful way to learn to write. You're absorbing that structure without even realizing it.
AE: Without even realizing it, yeah. It astonishes me how so many students of writing think they can be writers without reading anything. I'm encountering that more and more and it always worries me. I'm always telling them, "You know what, if you don't want to read you've got no business being a writer. You know, if you don't want to pick up a book and read and you'd rather sit around and watch America's Next Top Model or go on Myspace, it's just not going to happen. You can't be a boxer if you don't get into the ring and box."
And I tell my students, "Go to readings. If you're a student of writing, go to readings." Instead of going to the movies, I'll go to a reading. That's what I did when I was a student at UCR. I would go to a reading and then afterwards I'd go up to the writer and say hi. Like "Would you sign my book, and I'm a writer too." There's something to be said when you see a writer you admire and you meet them and shake their hand and they acknowledge you. Something gets transmitted in the exchange.
DM: When my sister and I were younger, my father took us to readings. I remember going to see Joyce Carol Oates, and she can't call herself a writer either. Did you know that?
DM: Yes, that's what she said. I remember you mentioning at your reading that it was hard for you to call yourself a writer, and I was so glad you said that because I feel the same way.
AE: And there's nothing wrong with feeling that way. I think some people will argue with you and say, "If you're serious about it you should call yourself a writer." But there are people who are serious about it—people like Joyce Carol Oates.
DM: Yes! And yet she writes a novel a year, not to mention short stories and poems, novellas, criticism, personal essays, and plays.
AE: I know, so how could she not call herself a writer? But I think it's partly because of the way we perceive writers and writing. There are people who think, "Ooo. It's so great. It's so exciting that you're a writer. You get whisked off to readings and coffee shops and do all these interviews." So I think it's been romanticized to a point, and I think people forget that it's work. I think there's a disconnect between what a writer is and what a writer does. So when people ask me if I consider myself a writer I say, "Well, Writer with a capital W, and I think that's what you mean...and no, I don't consider myself that." I consider myself a different kind of writer, but not a writer in that sense. I know what you're saying. I know what you mean, and I don't think you're using it in a derogatory sense, but for me, my definition of it is very different. And I don't tell people what I do. If they ask me what I do I say, "Well, I teach and I write some stuff." Because otherwise people look at you weird and they're like, "What do you mean you write?"
DM: Yes, I say that I'm a librarian because that's what I do everyday. I get up everyday and I go to work at a library, and I work at two libraries, and sometimes I feel like I'm running my tail off. Oh, and you know, Michael Jaime Becerra was telling me that he considers it a luxury to be able to write everyday.
AE: It is.
DM: Some people are like, "I'm going to go out in my bunny slippers now and write from eight to two o'clock in the afternoon, and then I'm going to read for the rest of the afternoon." And I can't help but think, "Wow, lucky you. " I care passionately about my relationship with my boyfriend, and then I have all these hours I'm working, so how do we maintain that balance?
AE: It's tough. It really is. And it also has a lot to do with having a work ethic. But like I was telling you, today I had to get some medication for my mom, but does Jonathan Safran Foer have to do that? Probably not. Okay, he's a "Writer." I'm a writer too, but I'm a different kind, and it's just as legitimate.
DM: I think so.
AE: It's just that I'm a different kind of writer. I mean, look at Susan.
DM: Yes, she's a real inspiration.
AE: She is. But I didn't start writing habitually and on a schedule until I was in graduate school.
DM: Yes, would you talk about that? Would you talk about your process?
AE: When I was a student at UCR, I remember writers saying stuff like, "I spend three hours a day writing," or "I spend two weeks not writing and then the next two weeks writing." And I would always shrink in my chair, you know? I'm just the biggest procrastinator. It wasn't until I got to graduate school that I would sit down and write everyday. But when I was writing Still Water Saints, I was in different phases of the book, and there were times when I would write for an hour, and there were other times when I would write for three. And then there were times when I would rewrite. But what I find really works for me now is writing a thousand words a day everyday. And I don't stop to edit. This is what I'm doing with the novel I'm writing now. I write my thousand words a day and I don't stop to edit. I don't stop to check the spelling. Right now I'm getting it out, and I'll reshape it later. But I do a thousand words a day.
Lisa See learned from her mom [Carolyn See] to write a thousand words per day, and I picked it up from Lisa. And it works for me. A thousand words a day. It's not as much as you think.
DM: Ooo! You're inspiring me.
AE: After I've written my thousand words for the day, I feel good. And at some point I go back and edit what I've written, and that's when the real work begins. That's when the heavy lifting begins. But for now, I'm writing a thousand words per day, and then I'll read either a section from a novel, or a short story, or a poem every day. That's it. And so that works for me. And like I said, if I can do it—and I'm the laziest person in the world—then I think anybody can do it. That's my work ethic. If I don't put the time in, it's not going get done. Sometimes it's really hard. I don't want to do it.
DM: I think I'm going to borrow that technique from you and see how it works.
AE: Yeah, try it. Just try it.
DM: I will.
AE: And again, don't stop to edit. Do it for five days. A thousand words a day. That's about four or five pages per day. By the end of the week you'll have twenty to twenty-five pages of new stuff, and then over the weekend, edit what you wrote. It's that easy. And don't stop to edit when you're writing those thousand words. It's easier than you think.
Sometimes I think what I was doing was making distractions for myself. You know what I mean? And I think the trick is to realize when you're doing that.
DM: Yes, I think about my responsibilities to the library blog, and the website, and then my writing is at the bottom of the list of things to do.
AE: Yeah, we have this tendency to put a list up of things we have to do, and so writing is the very last thing.
DM: You're right.
AE: So the trick is to find ways to move it up. And you can take baby steps. But when you start prioritizing, before you know it, it's the first thing you think about.
And you know what? I used to like writing at night because it was usually the last thing I did in the day, and then it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up. Because I'd be writing at night, and then I'd go to bed and I'd be thinking about what I'd written, and then I'd wake up the morning, and it would be the first thing on my mind. But now I find myself writing in the afternoon, in the morning...just whenever I feel like I want to get my thousand words out. But the thousand word thing does work.
And just tell yourself...like even if you do five hundred in the morning and five hundred at night. You know what I mean? Just as long as you give yourself that goal of a thousand words. And when you reach your thousand, even if you feel like you could go on, stop. Because it keeps the momentum going.
DM: Oh! What a cool idea!
AE: Because you pick up right where you left off. No matter if you say to yourself, "Oh, I'm really getting into this. I can go for another two to three pages."
Stop. Once you reach your thousand words, just stop.
'Cause you're like...whoa! Excited! And that energy makes you get more into it the next time.
Just like when you're watching a TV show, and there's that cliff-hanger right before the commercial, and then you're like, "Man, I guess I'll run to the bathroom." But you want to get back to it!
It's the same thing. These little things work for me, and I've discovered them on my own. No writer or professor can teach you this stuff. You have to learn it on your own.
DM: Could we talk for a few minutes about your novel? Do you have time?
AE: No problem. I've got like...maybe 15 more minutes.
DM: That'll work! I wanted to mention to you that as I was reading Still Water Saints, I was thinking that it could very well be read as a collection of short stories. Each chapter is an emotionally charged piece—much like a short story. And I felt terribly sorry for that poor kid Rodrigo you wrote about. As I read that particular story, I wondered how he came about.
AE: Well, I knew I needed to go to really dark place with my character Perla—I knew I needed to go to a very dark place with her when I was writing those chapters. A lot of the customers who come to see Perla have issues that are very serious, but she had never come face-to-face with someone who was beyond her range of understanding. And so I asked myself, "What if a customer came in who presented herself in such a way that nobody was prepared to handle it, least of all Perla?" A situation that was so alarming and intense, so brutal that she has no way of understanding it, of dealing with it. What would she do? What would any of us do? So that's how the story of Rodrigo came about.
DM: I was horrified when Dwight said to Rodrigo, he says to this young kid basically, "You belong to me. You're mine."
AE: And writing that was really scary.
DM: I wondered about that.
AE: It was really scary. And I remember when I was writing it I asked myself, I'm like, "What are you doing?"
AE: Perla sections were written after Rodrigo's. Her chapters weren't workshopped, so I didn't know how people were going to react to it. Only one or two people read those sections, and we talked about them. But this was all new stuff. And as I was writing it I wondered how people were going to react. But it felt right. I felt like that was the direction I needed to take the character. But how many times do you hear these news reports about things going on at a house right next door? Where you find that you had twenty undocumented immigrants living in a house, crammed one on top of the other, and not allowed to leave. Recently I read a story in the paper about a father and son who'd lured a fourteen or fifteen year old girl off the Internet and they had her in their house. They had her tied, and they were taking turns beating and raping her. And of course the neighbors were like, "We never knew. We heard somebody screaming but..."
DM: They heard somebody screaming!
AE: One neighbor said they heard somebody screaming but thought it was the TV. How many times does that happen? And so I thought, "Well, this could happen. A person could like Rodrigo could be put into a similar situation, and nobody would ever know."
So it started out that way. And I remember thinking that Perla needed to
encounter this and try to figure out what she could do to help. Because she has her customers, but the problems they present that are manageable to some extent. But what if a person were to come to her shop with a situation that she has no way of dealing with. She doesn't have a candle for what happens to Rodrigo. She doesn't have a tea that he can drink that'll make it better. So it was very scary. Some of those sections were very scary both to read and to write.
DM: And the story about the drug addicts, too.
AE: Oh yeah, Shawn and Beady.
DM: And yet they were so compelling. When you mentioned at the reading that it poured out of you, I turned to my boyfriend and said, "It reads that way, too." I was so caught up in that world.
AE: Sean was the sort of character where I just got ugly. And I wanted to get ugly. And it was, to some extent, a really weird experience. But I think that's what a writer does. You need to be able to sift through all those different personas. Like some of Susan Straight's stuff is just brutal, and she's the sweetest woman in the world.
DM: Oh I know. High Wire Moon is amazing. It's one of my favorite novels.
AE: And then at home she makes wine cake and she's a mother. And that's what a writer does. And I wanted to do that, too. And I tried to do that with characters like Sean and Beady and Dwight who takes Rodrigo. And Perla learns, I think, that a lot of the best lessons we learn are those lessons we learn when we fail. It's through failure that she learns how to be a faithful person.
DM: I remember thinking, "Can't Perla go after him somehow? Why doesn't she go after him?" Because Rodrigo panics. He just takes off. I wanted to leap into the book and say, "Go! Go get him! He's going to this very unsafe place." I wanted to save him.
AE: And I don't know what happens to them.
DM: Which makes for a nice segue into the next point I wanted to make. You mentioned that you want to revisit Agua Mansa by way of another novel.
AE: Well I have these characters that keep popping into my head even as I write my second book. And I think it's going to have me going back to Agua Mansa. And I'm excited to see how it's changed. Who's still there and who's not. And it's exciting. You don't plan these things, but characters just show up when you least expect them to, and that's what's been happening with this book.
I find that that's a cool thing when you write about a community. They take on a life of their own and they're like, "Hey, you're not done with me yet."
DM: And some reviewers said that was one the struggles they had while reading your book. They wanted to continue with some of the characters. And I was feeling this way too. I was like, "But wait! Come back. I need to know this..." I think that's what we're all really saying. We want to know what happens to them. Which is a very fine compliment, to my mind.
AE: Yeah, that's what I think too. That's how I took it. You find out
what happens to some people, and not so much what happens to others.
DM: Which is a lot like life.
AE: It is.
DM: Some people are in our lives for a short while, some for a longer stay, and others are with us forever. I think one reviewer said, too, that Perla serves as this force of stillness. She's the only one who stays still long enough to bear witness while the rest of us rush by.
AE: Yeah, the rest of us are sort of bouncing up against each other. Yeah, she's the only one who does know.
DM: She stays still. She's the mother of the community.
AE: And I think the community is changing, too. Like so many communities in the Inland Empire. It's changing rapidly.
DM: Yes, it's rather shocking isn't it?
AE: Yeah, it drives me crazy. I mean, there are times when I drive through an intersection and I remember there was an empty field there, and suddenly there's a Best Buy. The whole balance has shifted. And then I'm like, "I don't know where I am. I recognize the street name, but I don't know where I am." And I think Agua Mansa is becoming that. You have a character like Perla who isn't one hundred percent sure where she fits in anymore. And that's creating within her this sense of anxiety. There's a threat that starts to build throughout the course of the book, a constant feeling of danger. All of these elements that are coming from outside and changing it. Some it is good, and some it's not so good--as in life. Perla thinks the tattooed guys are one thing, but they end up being something else. But there are bad people like Dwight.
DM: People who take your youth and strip it away. People who say, "You're mine. You belong to me."
AE: I think it goes back to the idea of property, the exchanging of goods. People as property. Perla gives people things that will hopefully make them feel better, and to some extent, Dwight wants that also. He's looking for this, and he wants it because he thinks it will make his life, his situation better. But it doesn't have the impact on his life that he would like.
DM: Because he's looking outside of himself.
AE: Right, he's not addressing what the real problem is.
DM: I think we do that in our relationships, too. Some of us look to the other person in the relationship and say, "I have this ideal. Please be that ideal for me." And it's so unfair to the other person.
AE: And I think it also involves being honest with yourself when you're confronting a problem. Everyone who comes to the botanica tells Perla the truth. They tell her, "This is what my situation is," and so she's able to address them honestly. Dwight doesn't do that. He doesn't address the problem honestly, which is why it ends up turning out the way it does.